Adam Walker waited for a call in his Tokyo apartment after a game with the Yomiuri Giants.
He didn’t start the game but did have a pinch hit two-RBI double.
The call from the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel came at 11 p.m. his time, 9 a.m. Milwaukee time. He’d been playing baseball in Japan since March, so he was used to the time difference when he got calls from home.
Walker spent the previous three years playing for his hometown independent team, the Milwaukee Milkmen, winning a championship in 2020 and back-to-back MVPs in 2020 and 2021. During the offseason he played winter ball in Colombia and Mexico and tried to learn Spanish. So, he’s used to life in a foreign country.
It hasn’t stopped him from producing on the field. Walker became an all-star in his first season with the Giants.
But playing in Japan brought different challenges.
“For me the hard part is I can’t read the language,” Walker said. “I went and played in Colombia and Mexico and when I was there I was able to pick up Spanish and start to understand it better. I still don’t speak it great but at least I can read, I can go out and order food on the menu. But when I got here that’s when it really hit me, that I can’t read the language.”
Before going to Japan, Walker regularly went on Duolingo to learn Japanese, but nothing compares to being in the country and immersed in the language.
“I’ve got a lot of work to do but I’m trying,” Walker said. “I’m trying to pick some stuff, learn something every day. Try to speak to my teammates (in Japanese) as much as I can. It’s definitely difficult but I’m trying. It seems like they appreciate my effort so far.”
For some baseball players, their ascent to the big leagues is quick, for others it’s often a long and difficult journey.
Just about every player at every level in professional baseball has played with someone from a different country. Often times foreign players are the ones traveling to the United States to work their way up in baseball.
But Walker is one of the few American players competing in a foreign land.
Like MLB teams, the Giants have a translator to help players like Walker during team meetings, practice and in the clubhouse.
“He’s been a big help for sure,” Walker said of the translator. “As far as off the field, we’re on our own. Luckily where I’m at, Tokyo is fairly English friendly. So if you go some places they might have an English menu or some servers can speak a little bit of English just to help me out.”
When he does go out to a restaurant or store, Walker uses Google Translate to converse with locals when he’s at a loss for words.
It’s part of the experience of being in a new country, in a new culture to “see if I can figure it out.”
One thing he figured out was how to address people based on their place in society.
“There’s a hierarchy based on age,” Walker said. “If you’re saying, ‘thank you,’ like ‘arigatou.’ But then if you’re saying it to someone older like your boss or my coaches I would say ‘arigatou gozaimasu’ to make it more polite. There are different ways to speak based on who you are talking to.”
Walker’s journey with Yomiuri Giants almost began in 2021
Walker was close to playing for the Giants in 2021 but the team opted to sign veteran MLB players such as former Milwaukee Brewer Eric Thames.
So Walker returned to the Milkmen and won his second MVP.
After losing in the American Association playoffs, Walker went to Mexico to play for the Naranjeros de Hermosillo in the Mexican Pacific League.
But he wasn’t there long, maybe a few weeks.
“My agent called me and told me the Giants were interested, that we were close to getting a deal done and asked me if I could get home so we can do a physical and everything,” Walker said. “It happened pretty quick.”
Walker explained his situation to his coaches and thanked them for the opportunity to play, then returned to Milwaukee last November to get his physical and paperwork for the Japanese government.
Originally he was supposed to get to Japan in January but the coronavirus pandemic was still causing major issues with international travel to Asia.
“(Japan) closed the border because of COVID,” Walker said.
He relied on his off-season throwing and hitting routine to stay ready for the season.
Walker wasn’t the only foreign player the Giants signed and the team set up a camp to work with the players and to give them some lessons in Japanese language and culture.
“They got us together in Tuscon, Arizona, and we were able to get out on the field, get some work in, pitchers threw, and I think it was a way for them to check and see how we were feeling,” Walker said. “And it was nice to be able to meet them so that way, at least, we had some familiar faces when we did finally get to Japan.”
One of his new teammates is someone very familiar to Brewer fans — former Pittsburgh Pirate Gregory Polanco.
“He’s a good ballplayer,” Walker said of Polanco.
The Giants camp lasted about two weeks in Arizona and then players returned home and waited for the green light to travel to Japan.
“It was a little stressful,” Walker said. “I didn’t have any doubts that I would miss the season. I just thought it would take a little while… I felt like where we were at in the world and vaccines, it just felt like canceling a season wasn’t an option.”
In March, months after he was hoping to start the season in Japan, Walker got the call to go to the Japanese consulate in Chicago to get his visa.
He drove down to Chicago, got his visa and flew out the next day and met up with teammates he spent time with in Arizona.
“Once we got to Japan, it was nice to have a familiar face you could talk to and have someone that you knew,” Walker said. “It would have felt a lot different if, you know, you get there a week or two before the season and you don’t know anybody.”
Opening day, first hit, and adjusting to a different style of play in Japan
When Walker arrived to Japan in March, he had only a few weeks to get acquainted with the rest of his teammates and how the Giants operate.
One of the first things he learned was they practice – a lot.
There were hitters meetings everyday where they talked about pitchers. The team had righty and lefty pitchers going at the same time during batting practice. Players were working on their throws and stealing bases.
“There’s always something going on, someone working on something,” Walker said. “It’s not just ‘come in and get your swings in.’ It’s like every part of the game. All the little details they really work on.”
Having spent time in affiliated and independent baseball, Walker never worried about making the opening day roster, but this was different. He wondered if he would need to spend time in the Giants’ minor-league system.
But he made the roster.
“For me it was a big deal because I made the team,” Walker said. “I was pumped.”
Although he didn’t start the game, Walker said his manager liked to use his bench and he got opportunities early in the season.
“My first opportunity to pinch hit I got an RBI double,” Walker said. “That felt good. It was a relief to be able to come in and get that first hit out of the way.”
After that first hit, he relaxed and thought, “I belong here. I can do it.” He has the ball from that first hit in his apartment.
The style of play is different in Japan compared to the United States. Walker said it’s much more of a small-ball game. More bunting and hit-and-runs. And pitchers are more versatile.
“There’s still guys that throw hard but it feels like in America it’s hit for power, throw for power,” Walker said. “The biggest thing for me (in Japan) was you get a scouting report on a pitcher, and it felt like everybody threw five (different) pitches… you have guys that throw more pitches, and you can get any pitch at any time.”
During his time with the Milkmen, Walker was known for his power, setting the record for home runs in a season in the American Association. But in Japan, the home runs didn’t come easy.
When the Giants were on the road playing their rivals the Hanshin Tigers, Walker left his hotel to explore a nearby park and shrine.
“There was an elderly guy and his wife, I’m assuming, and they were walking around at the same time and they looked at me and he asked if I’m Walker,” Walker recalls the man asking in Japanese, to which he said yes. “He said, ‘Hey, nice to meet you’ and then was like ‘Against the Tigers, please hit a home run.’”
Walker said he responded back in Japanese “I’ll do my best.”
“I hadn’t been starting, I had some pinch hits,” Walker said about that time in the season. “Not a lot of people really knew me. But that guy knows me.”
Sure enough that next day he hit a three-run homer that helped the Giants win the game.
“I got it pretty good. It definitely cleared the fence,” Walker said. “It was nice to have no worries once I hit it… To get that first homer, that’s what people know me for.”
Walker ended his first season with the Giants hitting 23 home runs and had 52 RBI. He batted .271 and had the second-most doubles on the team with 28.
‘Will I miss him? 100%’
To his parents he’s often called “Adam Brett” or just “Brett,” his middle name, the only child of mom Glynis Payne-Walker and dad Adam Walker.
Payne-Walker said being an only child helped her son be more independent especially when he graduated Milwaukee Lutheran High School and went to Jacksonville University at age 17.
“That prepared him for living life away from home and it also prepared us for knowing that his life is going to be a little different,” Payne-Walker said. “I was never worried about him.”
The elder Adam Walker, defensive coordinator for the Concordia University football team, remembers taking his son to the batting cages when he was younger and working on his arm in the backyard.
He also knew coming from Wisconsin, the chances of his son making a career in baseball was slim.
“You have to make the most of your opportunities, they don’t come around a lot,” Walker said, adding that Wisconsin winters cut into kids playing baseball in the off-season, which has an impact on college scouts recruiting in the area. “They know northern kids don’t get to play a lot of games so they’re not as anxious to come up here and watch you play like they do kids down south. He was fortunate enough to be seen and picked a good school.”
For family and friends of ballplayers in the minor leagues, it can be difficult to watch them play particularly if they play in a different state. The Walkers have had to adapt to their son playing in the MLB minor leagues for 12 seasons in cities from Cedar Rapids to Gwinnett to Chattanooga and others.
“But for us he’s been in the MLB minor leagues with TV (contract), with no TV,” Walker said. “So we’ve had to adjust (during) his whole playing career. So for us, I’m always on the internet trying to find an article about this or that to keep up with what’s going on.”
The Walkers made sure to take a trip to watch him play each city during his minor-league career but when he got to the Milkmen in 2019, they felt relieved.
“When he got to play with the Milkmen it was a blessing because we got to see him on a regular basis,” Walker said.
Payne-Walker said their son’s time with the Milkmen was a “special experience.”
“It was really the only time in his professional career that he was at home, where family and friends could come watch him play,” Payne-Walker said. “We’ve always traveled to see him play. At every level, we’ve been there.”
Even his grandmother got to watch him play in Milwaukee.
But with their son playing in Japan, it was an adjustment for the family.
“We had to figure out, if it’s 7 a.m. here… it’s 9 p.m. there,” Payne-Walker said. “We had to figure out the calling times.”
The Walkers would occasionally wake up around 4 a.m. to watch their son play.
“I and my wife found a guy on YouTube where there’s cartoon characters going around the bases,” Walker said. “I don’t understand a word he’s saying but I can see who’s up, whether they hit a single or double. I can see the score. I periodically get up in the morning and watch that, just for the love of the game and see how their doing.”
Win or lose, they would send him a message on WhatsApp.
“We’ve always been like that as a family, just always touch base and make sure everyone is alright,” Payne-Walker said.
They checked in on their son daily either by text or call.
“Every now and then we’ll do a video chat so his grandmother can see him as well,” Walker said. “For the most part, he’s doing it and we’re watching it and cheering from afar… I’m just happy that he’s happy. That’s the bottom line.”
But in July, the family was able to be together for 11 days in Tokyo to see the city and watch some baseball.
“I would say the biggest surprise is how well the Japanese people embraced him,” Payne-Walker said. “They really appreciate his level of hard work, and he seems able to relate to them and they relate to him.”
Both parents were taken aback by how nice and gentle the Japanese people treated them and their son.
“I had no idea what to expect, I didn’t know if I was going to enjoy the food,” Walker said. “The food was incredible. The best food I ever had.”
They arrived at the Tokyo Dome early to watch the team and their son warm up.
Walker said he’d always been “that dad” at the ballpark.
“I’m at the park early watching batting practice, watching him in the outfield, so it was nice to get a chance to see him do that there,” Walker said.
Like many parents, they took photos of their son playing baseball as he had when he was a child.
“I wanted to be able to take some photos of him in his uniform, like a mom,” Payne-Walker said laughing and added after the game was over they were able to go on the field. “They allowed us to go out through the dugout and onto the field and take some pictures. And they (the fans) clapped and we waved goodbye and went down and into the dugout.”
Their attendance did not go unnoticed.
“We happened to be on the news that ‘Adam Walker’s parents are visiting from the states,’” Payne-Walker said. “That was fun.”
Life as a ballplayer means accepting the future is uncertain. The Walkers would love to watch their son play baseball in America again, but they’re preparing for him to be in Japan for the foreseeable future.
“I bet he’s going to be there for years and I’m OK with that,” Walker said. “Will I miss him? One hundred percent. But I’m happy that he’s happy… with the ups and downs, he’s still had a life a lot of people would dream to have.”
From Milkmen MVP to an all-star player in Japan
Walker’s production impressed the league. When it came to forming the all-star teams of the league, Walker was selected by the all-star team manager.
“At that time, I was only pinch hitting, I only had a couple at-bats so I wasn’t even on the list of players to vote for,” Walker said. “I went from not even being considered to being picked up by the manager and him saying he wanted me to come join and represent the Central League in the All-Star Game. It definitely felt good.”
In Japan there are two all-tar games, one in a metropolitan part of the country, another in a rural part of the country. Walker said he was a starter in the second game.
“That was a cool experience,” Walker said about starting. “I got in the first game and got one at-bat but then I was able to get three (at-bats) the next day as a starter.”
Walker credits his time with the Milkmen for helping him develop as a player.
“With the Milkmen I started to rethink how I wanted to play the game,” Walker said. “I started to think about how I could turn those lows and turn the three-strikeout games into one (strikeout). And instead of being a .250 hitter, going 1 for 4 every day, how can I go 2 for 4 and try to raise my average. With my time with the Milkmen, those are things that I really started thinking about and how I can be better.”
Milkmen manager Anthony Barone is not surprised with the success Walker has had.
“He’s become a superstar over there,” Barone said. “That’s not easy to do either, as an American.”
Barone said he and the Milkmen organization are proud of the person and player he is.
“The work he put in the last couple of years in Milwaukee, the type of human being he is, the type of family he comes from, you just knew that if he gets his chance – he’s going to shine,” Barone said.
Barone has stayed in touch with his former player and knows about the adjustment Walker has had to go through.
“He’s well-travelled but it’s still a culture shock for everybody that goes over to Japan,” Barone said. “But I give guys credit for when they take that venture into the unknown. Sometimes the things you’re worried about at first can be the best things that happen in your life.”
With his first season in Japan in the books, Walker reflected on how far he has come.
“When I got here I went from hoping to make the opening day roster to getting some opportunities and getting some pinch hits, to being a starter, to making the all-tar team, it’s been crazy,” Walker said. “I’m just trying to prove myself as a baseball player and try to show what I can do everyday.”
Contact Ricardo Torres at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter at @RicoReporting